Why the Government Keeps Screwing Up On Coronavirus So Badly

Believe it or not, they're not trying to get us killed. But here's why they keep failing.
19 May 2020, 7:45am
boris johnson coronavirus
Photo: Tim Ireland / Xinhua / Alamy Live News 

Having locked down too late, the government is opening up too early. This is tantamount to sourcing fresh human hosts for the virus, risking a deadly new peak of infections. They may as well say, "We welcome our new virus overlords…"

Last week, the government embarked on the first phase of its exit plan. Workers were advised to return to their workplaces, public transport systems re-opened closed services and social distancing measures were relaxed. The government has also relaxed its "nudge" messaging from "stay home" to the vague, insipid "stay alert". This follows a previous decision to lift self-isolation advice for incoming travellers. It hopes to be able to re-open schools and non-essential shops next.

The justifications for this are both medical and economic. According to Public Health England and the University of Cambridge, the "R number" – the rate of infections – is below 1 in all regions of the country. That means fewer people will catch the disease in future than currently have it. However, it is likely to be just below 1, and could easily tip over again.

There is, as yet, no sign that the active number of cases is plateauing. The infection rate was rising again, even before lockdown measures were relaxed. In countries which have re-opened, infection rates have once more taken off. The government admits this is a warning, and has built into its recovery plan enough flexibility to backtrack. However, with over 34,000 dead already, according to government statistics – or 60,000, according to Financial Times analysis of ONS data – it is taking a hell of a risk. Especially since the testing target is routinely missed, no work safety protocols have been established and there is no contact tracing and isolation system.

However, the government is balancing biological health with capitalist health. It argues that there is a threat of industrial "scarring" if lockdown continues, resulting in lower long-term growth, higher unemployment and depressed wages. That would choke funds for public services, resulting in more chronic illnesses. This is hypocritical. The threat to health didn’t stop the government cutting public services in the name of austerity, with excess deaths of over 120,000.

However, the threat of scarring is real, and belies the Bank of England's predictions of a City-led economic rebound. Based on this, government hawks led by the chancellor argued for cutting furlough aid. Ministers said we had become "addicted" and lulled into a "false sense of security" by state support. The ensuing recession would reveal a mass of unemployment and business failure hidden by furlough. However, for the "free market" right-wing, a recession has a moralising effect. It punishes bad investors, clears out dead wood, reallocates workers to more useful jobs and incentivises them to work harder. And if the system was going to bounce back next year, from their point of view, the sooner lockdown stopped clogging up the system with useless capital, the better.

Few economists agree with the Bank's outlook. Business isn't booming in reopened states in the US, where restaurants are still seeing only a tenth of their previous custom. Nor is social distancing going to wither away, as the Bank hopes. The pandemic is likely to return in waves of infections, necessitating periodic lockdown. Starving people into finding new jobs would hit the economy with a double-whammy. Demand would collapse, as household spending – already down 40 percent in April – fell further. A new infections peak, as masses returned to work, might necessitate an even more damaging lockdown. The austerians in the cabinet lost this battle, for the time being. The government maintained furlough, despite still asking people to go to work. This is also why it has built in plenty of room for backtracking in its published plans: hard restrictions could be reintroduced at short notice.

These contradictory tactical advances and retreats are easy to explain. The government, though desperate to "get back to normal", still can’t be sure what normal will look like in future. No one knows, for example, if plummeting world trade will recover. What kind of economy could Britain have in a de-globalising world? Hence, a growing contingent on the right favours a long period of statism – one contributor to Tory website Conservative Home advocated "a level of Government intervention in the market, or 'in society' and intrusion into our private lives, of a magnitude never before seen in the democratic West outside the two world wars".

More telling are the long-term plans for handling the pandemic. The government admits that a vaccine may never be found. So it's turning to "biosecurity", a concept taken from counterterrorism. The Joint Biosecurity Centre, set up by the government's pick to head MI6, is modelled on the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre. This is an approach that is favoured by many epidemiologists, who often work in the overlap between defence, academia and field research. The idea is to treat pandemic management as an intelligence problem. The virologist Nathan Wolfe, for example, speaks of tracking "viral chatter", much as one would track "terrorist chatter". They look to surveillance, geographic information systems and big data to identify risks before they become epidemics.

This will mean a close collaboration between intelligence, data giants, defence departments and civil servants. It will also mean that the big issues will be overlooked. The growing threat from microbes living in wild animal reservoirs, the practices of agribusiness – especially poultry and pig farming – of loggers and hunters, and the global food industry, among others, all require structural reform. They won’t be on the agenda. Nor is economic restructuring to build in pandemic resilience – not just stronger healthcare, social care and better workplace safety, but also shorter supply chains.

Rather, as Michel Foucault once put it, biopolitics is about finding a "bandwidth of the acceptable". The goal is to control the risks just enough to avoid repeated, damaging lockdowns. Even that modest objective, considering the failures of both intelligence and big data, may elude the government.

It is not that the government is trying to get us all killed. To the contrary, despite spectacular failures, it is trying to get the disease under control. And unlike some US Republicans, it doesn’t dare ask us to die for capitalism. But it is a capitalist party above all. It exists to conserve an economy that had to be shut down, and now needs to be overhauled. That’s why it was so late to act in the first place, why its "biosecurity" plans are so insipid and why it is making this unforced error of prematurely sending us back to work.